Swedes In Finland Flock To Vote Ahead Of Sunday Election

The rise of the country's right wing Sweden Democrat's party is fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment, and helped by an army of hybrid warfare social media bots.

Ballot papers for different Swedish political parties, available for voters at Swedish Embassy Helsinki, September 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

Sweden goes to the polls on Sunday to vote in local, regional and national elections.

If polling is accurate, the results could signal an historic shift in the political landscape of our neighbours to the west: the ruling centre-left Social Democrats of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven have lost support in a dramatic fashion, as have the largest opposition party the centre-right Moderates. The left have gained in the opinion polls, but it is the predicted gains by the right wing Sweden Democrats that have hit the headlines.

The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats are a strongly nationalist party, with their roots in the country’s neo-Nazi movement. And they’ve gained a lot of ground among voters, who could make them the second largest party in Sunday’s general election.

While other main parties have said they won’t try to form a government with the Sweden Democrats, the controversy around this election cycle could be spurring more Swedes living in Finland to cast a ballot.

Early Voting In Finland

At the Swedish Embassy in Helsinki, and Honorary Consulates in Turku, Vaasa and Tampere, voting has been brisk.

There are an estimated 8,500 Swedes registered to vote in Finland, and they had the chance to do it early.

“We have been seeing that people are coming to vote, there has been a great interest for this election and that is good” says Sidal Günes, head of Consular Services at the Swedish Embassy.

“We can say there that there are more people voting now than in 2014” she adds.

Many people came in the last few days of voting, which was extended through Wednesday 5th September, as the deadline to cast a ballot approached.

“It’s very hard to say who the Swedes [living in Finland] are. There are old people moving back here, ones living in Finland, moving to Sweden, working there, moving back. We have young people, business men, business women, there’s no average. We have lots of different people” explains Günes.

Ballot box at the Swedish Embassy Helsinki, September 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

Swedish Voters Speak Out

Fredrik Mattson arrived in Finland just ten days ago. Originally from southern Sweden, he’s studying physics at Helsinki University for a term.

He cast his vote this week at the Swedish Embassy, the second time he’s voted in a general election.

“It’s the responsibility for someone who lives in a democracy to vote” the 25-year-old tells News Now Finland.

“For me personally, even though one vote is not going to make a big difference, I want to be part of it” he adds.

Another Swedish voter Kim Mäkelä also voted this week. At the last election he flew from Ireland to Sweden to cast a ballot.

“Ever since growing up my parents always said the only way you can make a change is to use your voice, so it’s important to vote” says the 27-year-old.

In the weeks leading up to the election he’s been getting his news about Sweden from international sources, but closer to polling day he has been looking more at Swedish media. However, he thinks the media has been focusing on the election “for the wrong reasons”.

“There’s been a little too much focus on the negative forces in Sweden, but that’s been for a decade now. It’s just normal. It’s been so brought into everyday, it’s normal in Sweden now to be on the ‘right’ side of things and it’s a bit scary” he tells News Now Finland.

File photo showing hacker sitting at computer with Russian flag backdrop / Credit: iStock

Rise Of The Right

The rise of Sweden’s right wing has been helped during this election cycle by an army of social media bots, created to specifically amplify their more extreme message.

The Swedish Defence Research Agency FOI published a study examining nearly 600,000 tweets from 45,000 different accounts, and concluded that 40% of automated bot accounts were spreading content supportive of the Sweden Democrats agenda.

“Bots can be used to spread disinformation. If content is widely disseminated, social media users may be led to believe that this content is more shared, more widely accepted, or more mainstream than it actually is” says the report.

Prime Minister Löfven had already warned about the threats to his country’s democratic process.

“We know that operations are underway at the moment” Löfven said in a speech to a security conference in January.

He described a hybrid war against established democracies involving disinformation and fake news; funding for far right extremist groups; and computer hacking targeting political party IT systems; and pointed to Russia as a main protagonist.

Lessons From Finland

A swarm of social media bots is a trick that’s been seen before in Finland, during this year’s presidential election.

At that time, a researcher in Helsinki identified hundreds of fake Twitter accounts which followed at least two leading Finnish presidential candidates.

The fake accounts were set up to look as if they were made in Finland, with 399 following President Sauli Niinistö and another 330 following Green candidate Pekka Haavisto.

Haavisto’s campaign had previously reported suspicious Twitter activity to the Finnish Intelligence Service SUPO in December 2017.

With the next general election scheduled for April 2019, Finnish political campaigns and hybrid warfare experts will already be vigilant, for any suspicious online activity that could seek to influence voters.